Men’s Basketball: Northwestern looks to contain, communicate at Penn State

Katherine Driessen

JerShon Cobb’s game-time philosophy is not especially philosophical.

“I’ve just got make stops,” the freshman guard said. “Then I’ve got to make shots. That’s what you’ve got to do.”

It’s the sort of approach that typifies the understated Cobb’s demeanor, though his play of late has been nothing short of assertive: Over the past three games, Cobb has posted 35 points, including a 14-point contribution during Northwestern’s 75-66 loss to Michigan on Wednesday night.

With less than three minutes left against the Wolverines, Cobb nailed a trey and picked off the ensuing in-bounds pass to put up a quick two points. The five-point play was enough to narrow Michigan’s lead to one and revive NU’s chances, if only for the 12 seconds it took Cobb to convert the back-to-back baskets.

“On the court he’s really calm, really smooth,” sophomore forward Drew Crawford said. “He performs well under pressure.”

It’s a good sign for the Wildcats, whose leading scorer, junior forward John Shurna, has seen limited play time in the past two games after sustaining a concussion against Minnesota two weeks ago. Without Shurna contributing anything close to his 17 points-per-game average – he mustered just four points in 25 minutes against Michigan – senior guard Michael Thompson, Cobb’s de-facto mentor, and Crawford have shouldered much of the offensive burden. And it’s not getting any lighter. NU will need to run a near-perfect final conference slate to realize any postseason dreams, of either the NCAA or the NIT variety, and the Cats will need all the scoring they can find.

Cobb has proven up to the task. Not that it’s much of a surprise, as the Georgia native entered NU as one of the most highly touted recruits in program history, offering both deft ball handling and potent athleticism.

“He’s grown a lot (this) season both on and off the court,” Thompson said. “I think I’ve been a pretty good mentor to him, but he’s really matured on his own on the court. He knows how to run the ball.”

NU will need Cobb to contribute on both ends of the court when it heads to Penn State on Sunday. The Nittany Lions, who have mounted impressive wins over Michigan State, Wisconsin and Illinois this season, feature a stacked offense of their own. Senior guard Talor Battle is a double threat when it comes to distributing the ball and creating quick shots off the dribble.

NU is coming off a dismal defensive performance at Michigan where it allowed the Wolverines to control the paint 40-24 and run pick-and-rolls at whim all night long.

“It was all about communication,” Cobb said. “We needed to communicate better on the transition. With (Battle) we’ve just got to contain him.”

Cobb knows all too well the importance of playing stout defense. He assumed the gritty task of running the top of NU’s 1-3-1 defense, a role that graduate Jeremy Nash executed all the way to a Big Ten Defensive team position last year.

“You know when his (Cobb’s) dad visited he said that defense wasn’t really his son’s thing,” coach Bill Carmody said. “But you know he’s got that good tall frame so he’s not going to get outplayed on the mismatches and he can make some stops. We need him to keep doing that.”

The last time that NU faced Penn State, the stops were few and far between. Penn State shot 68 percent from the field goal range in the first half of the 2010 matchup and staved off a late NU run to deny the Cats a program-record 19th win on the season. Battle led the Nittany Lions’ effort with 16 points and six assists on the night.

It’s a performance that NU can’t afford to concede with its Tourney hopes fading fast.

“We know there’s pressure to get there,” Cobb said. “But we just need to win these games now.”

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